Drugs

Why Is the Obama Admin Sending Refugees Back to Narco War Nightmare the U.S. Helped Create?

U.S. policies helped push these people out of Central America. Now U.S. policy is pushing them back in.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer making an arrest.
Photo Credit: Duffman/Wikimedia Commons

With the New Year, the Obama administration has unleashed a new campaign of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids targeting Central American women and children who fled to the U.S. in 2014 to escape violence in their home countries. Some 17,000 are at immediate risk of being dragged from their homes and families and being detained and deported.

"Our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values," Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement announcing the action.

Some 121 people were arrested in raids last weekend, Johnson said, with many of them housed in family residential centers before their imminent deportation. The raids took place in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Johnson's statement noted that back in November, the administration had broadened its deportation actions beyond "criminals and threats to public safety" (including at least 250,000 people deported for drug offenses) to include those who threaten "border security" by having arrived uninvited after Jan. 1, 2014.

The administration signaled Friday that the raids will continue despite a growing outcry from some Democrats, progressives and immigrant rights groups.

Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley both railed against the raids, with Sanders saying that while he is an ally of the president, "I don't agree with him on this," and O'Malley saying "Jesus himself was a refugee child."

Protestors gathered in Boston Friday for an event organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coaltion (MIRA) echoed complaints being heard around the nation.

"I came to this country fleeing the terror of the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile," said the Unitarian Universalist Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa. "I know what it's like to be 12 years old and to live in fear that at any moment, an unmarked car will stop at your house and take your family away one by one. I know what it's like to fear that you will be the next one to disappear. My grandmother, my mother, and I were fortunate to find refuge here and build a life. Today, as a U.S. citizen I denounce the massive deportations and raids as a violation of human rights."

“The home raids that terrorize the community, separate families, and wake up sleeping children must stop. Arresting, detaining, and deporting them is not the answer,” said MIRA executive director Eva Millona. "Such crisis requires compassion and humane solutions."

That would include letting them stay in the country under Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure. The latter is the program that allowed Obama to regain some favor with the immigrant community when he used it to ensure that some five million young people whose parents brought them into the country illegally—the Dreamers—would be allowed to stay.

The people being targeted now are part of the 100,000 or so children and parents who fled gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras during the immigration crisis of 2014, when the specter of masses of Central Americans coming to the border and turning themselves in to seek asylum temporarily focused the nation's attention—and the Republicans' ire—on the issue.

Amid predictable calls for more walls, more border agents and immediate deportation, many of the asylum-seekers were placed in detention centers, while others were released, often with GPS ankle bracelets. The vast majority were processed without legal counsel and without any real understanding of the legal proceedings that would determine their futures. The people being targeted now are those whose asylum applications were rejected or those who failed to show up at immigration hearings.

The cruel irony of the situation is that U.S. policy deports these people back to countries wracked by poverty and violence that is due at least in part to other U.S. policies—the imposition of U.S.-style drug war on the region, and even earlier, Ronald Reagan's anti-communist crusade to thwart the region's leftist revolutionary movements in the1980s. U.S. policy helped to push these people out of Central America, and now U.S. policy is pushing them back in.

The U.S. can't be blamed for all the woes of Central America, of course, but it has certainly been a contributing factor. The violent gangs that have helped turn the region into one of the deadliest on the planet, such as Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, evolved in Salvadoran immigrant communities in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. after hundreds of thousands fled El Salvador's violent civil war. Some 75,000 people died in that conflict.

After the young Central American immigrants learned the fine art of gang-banging up north, deported gang members brought those skills back with them to the old country, laying the groundwork for the emergence of increasingly powerful and deadly street gangs, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras.

And thanks to the success of the Reagan administration in shutting down Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes into Miami in the early 1980s, the new deportees came home to countries increasingly awash in cocaine as Colombian smugglers began using the region as a trampoline, a transshipment point for drugs headed to Mexico before reaching their ultimate destination in the U.S.

"Drug prohibition makes drug transshipment very lucrative for organized crime," said Adam Isacson, a drug policy analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "U.S. efforts to interdict aerial and maritime drug shipments in the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s caused more and more cocaine to pass through Central America, a region recovering from civil war."

Another drug war success also had ramifications for the region, Isacson said.

"The mid-'90s takedown of the big Colombian cartels—the Medellin and Cali cartels—gave more market share to the Mexican organizations, which relied more heavily on Central American territory," he explained.

"The groups transshipped drugs through Central America's further corrupted and undermined already weak security and judicial institutions," Isacson continued. "And that made those institutions less able to protect their citizens."

It also made them more vulnerable to hyper-violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations, such as El Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, who began expanding their presence in Central America as they came under pressure from Mexican authorities, bolstered by U.S. anti-drug assistance at home.

Today Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world, and El Salvador has the highest murder rate the world has seen in 20 years, taking the dubious title of world's murder capital from neighboring Honduras, which claims an official decline in murders this year.

Some observers are skeptical. Jeannette Aguilar, director of Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University in El Salvador, told USA Todaythe apparent reduction could be artificial because the cartels have learned that too many bodies is bad publicity and have become adept at disposing of them.

"Because of the evolution of dismembering bodies, decomposing them, incinerating them, it's difficult to know if homicides have really fallen," she said.

The American policy response to violence, much of it drug trade-related, and social decomposition has historically been heavy on assistance to the military and police forces, like the Central American Regional Security Initiative, but that looks like it is finally beginning to change this year. Just last month, Congress approved $750 million in aid for the region that shifts the focus away from security initiatives and instead targets structural issues that have crippled the region.

The bill stipulates that 75% of the funds can only be spent after governments take on issues of corruption, transparency, immunity, and criminality. Equally important, it calls on regional governments to "support programs to reduce poverty, create jobs, and promote equitable economic growth in areas contributing to large numbers of migrants."

It will be up to the governments of those countries to try to make progress in alleviating the conditions causing so many people to flee, but as our policy-makers decide the fates of the people who have already sought refuge here, they would be remiss to ignore our own role in helping create this crisis. 

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

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